BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: BORN IN THE USA (1984)
1) Born In The USA; 2) Cover Me; 3) Darlington County; 4) Working On The Highway; 5) Downbound Train; 6) I'm On Fire; 7) No Surrender; 8) Bobby Jean; 9) I'm Goin' Down; 10) Glory Days; 11) Dancing In The Dark; 12) My Hometown.
There's no use pretending that this album is devoid of magic. There's no going against the bare facts: two listens at most, and these songs will stay with you forever — just remember the title, and the whole picture will come to you in a flash. Yes, this is largely because there is very little original songwriting here: most of these brawny rockers feature completely formulaic chord sequences, borrowed from blues, folk, country, and rockabilly, and very well tested by Father Time. But ol' Bruce knows how to make them come alive again under his own personal identity, and which particular notes, nooks and angles should be flash-lighted by means of the technological wonders of mid-Eighties' production. This could not have been anything but his commercial high peak — a simple, straightforward, immediately accessible and invigorating collection of kick-ass pop-rock tunes that was almost impossible not to buy in 1984.
Of course, it is also almost shamelessly manipulative. Liberals and democrats of all trades like to use the title track as indicative of conservative stupidity — always remembering how the Reagan people actually got in contact with the Springsteen people, asking them to allow the president to use the song in his ongoing campaign for re-election, despite the lyrics being so clearly ironic. But in fact, the Reagan people were certainly not stupid: most people, when hearing the song, would first and foremost be swayed by its anthemic, heck, its almost «jingoistic» refrain, and would hardly notice the lyrical content of the verses until much later. Does anybody really think this was not intentional — that neither Bruce nor Landau had anything but sheer intellectual irony on their minds? Maybe when it was still a humble acoustic demo during the Nebraska sessions, sure — but certainly not when it was transformed into this braggartly declamation, driven by Max Weinberg's killer drums and Bittan's fanfare-like synth riff. Like many other Springsteen songs, this one has a pair of different faces — one for the money, two for the show, and you have your choice of which one you'd like to consider the more important one.
Legend has it that after Nebraska, Springsteen actually engaged in a body-building program (any coincidence that First Blood came out in 1982?), and when you see the videos that accompanied the album — title track, ʽDancing In The Darkʼ, even ʽI'm On Fireʼ (where who else could our hero represent than a hard-working auto mechanic?) — you can understand that the man was really going all the way to refresh, solidify, and unify his image across all modes of perception, in a much more populist manner than even Born To Run could ever hint at. One reason why Bruce never made, or even tried to make, another album like this is that there was no need: Born In The USA made him into a living legend overnight, and from then on he could have released nothing but industrial noise or minimalist ambient albums all his life — having made his mark on the entire American nation, and even on quite a few people outside it, even if, technically, Born In The USA stigmatized him as a «local» phenomenon more than any other record.
And I have to admit that, on a sheer gut level, I feel more enthralled by this simplistic, straight-in-your-face approach than by the «quasi-progressiveness» of Born To Run. Case in point is ʽDancing In The Darkʼ, a song written at the last minute to complete the album and capture the man's then-current state of mind — the catchiness of its synth riff and elegantly resolved verse-chorus attack is not a simple formality, it is the perfect summarization of The Boss's entire «hope-in-the-face-of-impossible-odds» philosophy and quite a powerful musical anti-depressant in its own rights. In the famous video (and subsequent recreations of the video during the man's touring schedules, where he would pull out allegedly random girls from the audience for the last dance section), the song was primarily loaded with sexual connotations — what sort of a girl would refuse a fiery hunk like that? — but even its sexual connotations seem warranted here, not to mention all the other ones. And yeah, they found the perfect riff to fuel the fire.
Another personal favorite of mine has always been ʽBobby Jeanʼ, the most romantic-nostalgic track here and one of the few that could have perhaps fit in on Born To Run as well — a favorite largely because of Bittan's ABBA-style «grand» piano chords (three of them? four? no matter, less is more) that mesh so well with those vocals. It's a goddamn street romance story like every other, and I have no idea why it moves me so much more than ʽThunder Roadʼ, but there's just something about that piano and those hoarse vocals, and then of course Clarence has to come up and blow you away with one of those desperate sax solos. Such a simple, such a perfectly effective formula, I cannot resist it.
Yes, the genius of Born In The USA is that, unlike The River which was somewhat bland, this one is really Darkness On The Edge Of Town, repackaged in this much more simple way. Most of the songs are pretty bleak — ʽCover Meʼ is about using love as a last resort, ʽDownbound Trainʼ is about when not even love can help, ʽI'm Goin' Downʼ is about when love turns out to be a drag, and ʽI'm On Fireʼ is about... uh, well, it's kinda creepy, actually, when you listen to his "six-inch valley through the middle of my skull" metaphors. You don't want to mess around with The Boss when he's singing about his sex drive — Mick Jagger would be mincemeat against this heap of muscles circa 1984. But even so, ʽI'm On Fireʼ is explicitly about not getting any, and does anyone have any idea how many horny teenagers identified with the song that year?
On the other hand, if the album were all bleak, this might have hurt sales — so there's one for the truck drivers (ʽDarlington Countyʼ), one for the chain gang (ʽWorking On The Highwayʼ), one for the school skippers (ʽNo Surrenderʼ), one for the old folks (ʽGlory Daysʼ)... basically, it would only be the jaded intellectuals, I guess, who wouldn't have a tune here designed especially for them, everybody else in America had at least one or more. Really, the construction of the album is totally admirable — it is a perfectly thought out mechanism, no cog or wheel wasted, not a second out of place. Look how each of the two sides ends with a «softie» — ʽI'm On Fireʼ slowly putting out the flame of Side A, then ʽMy Hometownʼ, on an almost «adult contemporary» note (ironically, presaging much of the sound of Tunnel Of Love), quietly calms us down after ʽDancing In The Darkʼ had us all riled up. These are darn clever engineering solutions. Darn clever. How could this not have been such a huge success? After all, people who bought the record were only people. Defenseless against such a well-armed construction.
Is there any actual harm, though, from falling under the spell of Born In The USA? Well, there's nothing particularly wrong with liking Springsteen in general or this record in particular — it ain't sleazy, it doesn't have too much pretense, it isn't too dumb from a general musical standpoint (yes, these synth riffs are simpler than anything so far, but in many cases, this is genius simplicity, even if I do feel silly listening to ʽGlory Daysʼ), and it kicks ass. Many «hardcore» Springsteen fans seem offended by its simplicity — this sudden appeal to millions rather than just thousands makes them feel that Bruce is intentionally cheapening his act here, and he is, but see, the thing is, there's nothing inherently wrong about cheap acts if they're done with spirit. Even if he is acting all the way, Born In The USA sounds more adequate and convincing to me than Born To Run, and I can neither admit to hating it nor even to wanting to find a reason why I should.
Rereading an older review of this record by a much younger me, I'm sort of amused how I used to take this «he's dumbing it down, oh God no how come he's dumbing it down so much?» thing so much to heart, essentially leaving The Boss in a «damned if you do, damned if you don't» position: when he is «glorifying» and «complexifying» the common man on Born To Run, he gets slapped — when he is talking to the common man in common language on Born In The USA, he gets destroyed, come on now, this just ain't fair. As a symbol of repentance, I have just happily sung along to all the sha-la-la-las of ʽDarlington Countyʼ, and you know what? it was fun, you should try it, too, some day. Thumbs up, I'm going to play air guitar to ʽWorking On The Highwayʼ now — just please don't ask me to jack off to ʽI'm On Fireʼ, because that would be taking this album way too seriously and spoiling all the fun.